Why Being Present is the Hardest and Most Rewarding Thing You Can Do

If you are a parent inclined to take your kids to Disney World, as I do on occasion with my three-year-old daughter down in Florida, listen a little harder to the banter among surrounding people as you wait in lines for rides. You too may be surprised by how frequently their discussion turns to questions about what time they have reserved their next ride through something called “FastPass,” an app that allows park-goers to avoid longer waits by reserving rides in advance. After hearing this sort of back-and-forth among people in line after line, day after day, over the course of three or four Disney visits per year, the irony of Disney’s FastPass feature occurred to me: The very technology designed to enhance one’s experience of the present moment inflames a human tendency to resist embracing the present moment. The greater allure for too many of us is to always be looking beyond it. Something as superficial as an amusement park app turns out to underscore something far more troubling: the inconsolable restlessness at the core of our being.

I say this not in judgment of anyone but rather out of recognition of this shortcoming in myself. I myself often am this person who merely exists in the present moment instead of actually being present, someone who just as frequently as anyone else counts down the hours until the end of a workday, the days until the next paycheck, the weeks or months until the next vacation. The “now” in which I am typing this races through our lives unnoticed, or it is noticed only to the extent that we regard its passing as the gateway to whatever it is we anticipate. Walt Disney saw his parks as opportunities for people to “escape the everyday world—the strife and struggle.” No working parent has to be sold on the appeal of such an escape, even though a Disney trip with small children sometimes can feel like an extension of the struggle back home. The notion that may be harder to sell to working parents such as myself, but one that ultimately may be more powerful than any fleeting getaway, is the magic of embracing the present moment—however loaded it may be with the anxiety, stress, worry, uncertainty, unfairness, embitterments, angers, slights, pettiness, or ennui from which Disney sought to provide an “escape.” In fact, especially because it is loaded with the off-putting realities of the mundane.

Consider the courage it takes to embrace those banalities as ardently as we cherish the anticipated moments of our lives, to practice what Pema Chodron describes in her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, as “relaxing with the present moment.” Especially since, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that the majority of the things in which we invest a great deal of hope or anticipation are things that don’t linger with us for much longer than the time it takes to experience them—the moment that next paycheck arrives in your bank account, the one “parents’ night out” at your kid’s preschool during which you’ll enjoy an hour or two of uninterrupted adult conversation over a decent meal somewhere or, yes, the next ride you’ve punched into a day’s itinerary at an amusement park in a land of sea and sunshine. What if we don’t need an “escape” so much as we need to liberate ourselves from the desire for one? What if that is how actual contentment is found? What if daring ourselves to be at ease with the present moment is at once the most challenging and the most rewarding endeavor we can pursue amid the insane turbulence of our daily lives?

Instead, for most of us, the present moment is an inconvenience we nudge out of the way. Chodron argues that the reasons for this are “rooted in our fear of death,” which she says is the reason “why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives.” Whatever the reason, the present moment is something we live through the way we live through our exasperation at the old lady laboring over a checkbook in the grocery store line as others roll their eyes because now they’ll get home three minutes later than planned. We pummel ourselves with a frenzy of anticipations, the plans we have made for the “nexts” and needs and wants with which we shoo away our lives like some housefly fizzing in a windowpane. As the old John Lennon lines goes, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” If we’re too busy making other plans even as we experience the very things we’ve planned, as is the case with folks pulling up FastPass itineraries on their iPhones while flying Dumbos revolve overhead amid the shrieks and giggles of toddlers, then maybe technology has thrust us into a world even Lennon—even Disney—could not have imagined.

What is the source of this discontent? What is our problem? Maybe Chodron’s answer is the right one. Or maybe Douglas Coupland was on to something when he wrote during a recent stint in rehab, “I think data consumption has replaced organic experience as the measure by which our bodies perceive the passing of time.” True as that may be, how much more disturbing is it that “data consumption”—folks flipping through their phones to memorize the details of the day they have planned instead of actually experiencing the day they have panned—has replaced not just organic experience, but even the synthetic experience one has within a stultifyingly manicured place like Disney World? What I’ve been telling myself lately is this: Stop it. Stop yearning. Stop desiring. Stop anticipating. Be. Just be. I know I am not alone when I concede to the unlikelihood that I ever fully will rise to that challenge. I also know this: What’s worth trying is worth trying.

–Gianmarc Manzione